Special Report

Centaurs, The Sphinx, and The Minotaur: Human-Animal Hybrids of Old

Mythology and science fiction give way to public policy.

By 8.6.09

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Drunk, rowdy guests disrupt a king's wedding and try to kidnap the bride and other women there.

These troublemakers are Centaurs, half-man and half-horse, described either as a man with the barrel and hind legs of a horse extending from his back, or a horse with a man's body from the waist up in place of the horse's neck and head (H.J. Rose, A Handbook of Greek Mythology, Including Its Extension to Rome, New York: 1929).

In attacking the wedding of Perithus, king of the Lapiths, the Centaurs, who lost the ensuing battle, disrespect marriage. Other hybrids in Classical mythology, including the Sphinx and the Minotaur, also foreshadow the anti-life, anti-family agenda.

Not that all mythological hybrids were evil. Chiron, a Centaur, tutored Achilles, Asclepius, and Jason and knew the healing arts (Oxford Classical Dictionary 1970). Myths, furthermore, didn't develop to serve as morality plays. And no oracle revealed that the British Parliament in May 2008 would vote to allow scientists to combine human and animal DNA in human cloning attempts, with resulting embryos killed 14 days later (see LifeNews.com, May 19, 2008).

But in their mythical lives and origins, these hybrids suggest a primordial horror that can reside in the blending of the human and the animal.

The Centaurs had an evil progenitor, Ixion. He came to Zeus to be purified because he had murdered his father-in-law, to avoid paying the agreed-to bride-price for his wife, Dia. "As this was very near to murdering a blood-relation, if indeed they were not actual blood-kin, and no one had ever done such a thing before, no one would purify Ixion until at last he took refuge with Zeus, who consented to purify him," wrote Classicist H.J. Rose. But Ixion, with characteristic disregard for ties of blood, marriage, or friendship, attempted to seduce Hera, Zeus' wife.

Zeus retaliated by creating a replica of Hera, Nephele, out of a cloud, and by her Ixion fathered the first Centaur or the race of Centaurs. Ixion's offspring "were as rough and impious as their father," Rose noted.

Equally telling are the origins of the Sphinx, who is usually portrayed with wings, a woman's face, and the body of a lion. The Sphinx, along with Cerberus, Hades' watchdog, and other monsters, issued from the underworld's serpent-woman Echidna, and her mate of multiple dragon heads, Typhon.

The Sphinx was plaguing the city of Thebes when Oedipus arrived there. She asked a riddle of all and killed those who could not answer it. The riddle: What moves on four legs in the morning, two legs at noon, and three legs at night?

Oedipus solved it: The answer is man, who crawls in infancy (four legs), walks in adulthood (two legs), and uses a cane in old age (three legs).

The enraged Sphinx killed herself. Her intellectual pride had been thwarted. She needed to dominate through her intelligence and killed those "inferiors" who couldn't figure out her riddle. When Oedipus defeated her, she took her own life, the ultimate anti-life act.

"For, of course, power is what Pride really enjoys: there is nothing makes a man feel so superior to others as being able to move them about like toy soldiers," as C.S. Lewis wrote in Mere Christianity.

That is a description of genetic manipulators, who wish not merely to move people about, but to redesign them. Like the Sphinx, they wish to dominate out of intellectual pride.

It's interesting that the Sphinx's riddle involved something definitional to a human: walking upright on two legs.

With human-animal hybrids, however, we lose our sense of what is human.

The Minotaur of Crete -- a human-bull hybrid -- reduced human beings to fodder by devouring Athenian youths and maidens imprisoned in his Labyrinth. The humans became the food of the inhuman.

Crete, according to the myth, held Athens as a vassal state and demanded that every year it send seven youths and seven maidens as a tribute. The young Athenians were locked in the Labyrinth and either starved or got eaten by the Minotaur.

He came by his cruelty through origins as vile as the Sphinx's. The god Poseidon gave Minos of Crete a beautiful white bull. Instead of sacrificing it to Poseidon as promised, however, Minos kept the bull and offered a lesser victim to the god. Poseidon retaliated by making Pasiphaë, Minos' wife, desire the bull. The Minotaur resulted from their union.

But human love defeated him. Theseus, a prince of Athens, volunteered to be one of the victims, and journeyed to Crete with the ill-fated others. In Crete, Minos' daughter, Ariadne, fell in love with Theseus and gave him a thread that would let him find his way out of the Labyrinth. Once inside, Theseus encountered the Minotaur and slew him.

With the thread, Theseus escaped from the Labyrinth and then sailed away with Ariadne and the intended Athenian victims.

Theseus defeated the Minotaur, the Lapiths defeated the Centaurs, and Oedipus defeated the Sphinx.

Human-animal hybrids must be defeated by legislation banning the practice. Senators Sam Brownback and Mary Landrieu on July 9 introduced such a ban. The measure parallels their 2007 bill, later introduced in the House by Congressman Chris Smith.

"Creating human-animal hybrids, which permanently alter the genetic makeup of an organism, will challenge the very definition of what it means to be human and is a violation of human dignity and a grave injustice," said Brownback.

Brownback's press release explained that the bill "only affects efforts to blur the genetic lines between animals and humans," and does not bar "the use of animals or humans in legitimate research or health care where genetic material is not passed on to future generations."

On April 30, 2008, in a statement supporting a U.S. human-animal hybrid ban, Cardinal Justin Rigali said: "While this subject may seem like science fiction to many, the threat is all too real. The United Kingdom is preparing to authorize the production of cloned human embryos using human DNA and animal eggs, setting the stage for the creation of embryos that are half-human and half-animal."

Rigali, chair of the U.S. bishops' Committee on Pro-Life Activities, added: "Researchers in New York have boasted of implanting 'mouse/human embryonic chimeras' into female mice, and California scientists say they may produce a mouse whose brain is entirely made up of human brain cells."

It is not science fiction. Nor it is mythology.

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About the Author

Margaret Moen is an editor and freelance writer in St. Paul, Minnesota.